If you are of a certain age, you have seen it. The ubiquitous album cover for his groundbreaking double live album Frampton Comes Alive! The cover is festooned with an impossibly young looking Peter Frampton, signature black Gibson Les Paul in his hands, his curly halo of hair and gleaming smile beaming out over his audience. In the days before music videos forced bands to project an image so they had a chance of standing out from the sea of other bands doing the same, it was the album cover that sold a lot of records. Frampton Comes Alive! also became a favorite of station programmers who picked which eight or ten songs would be put into heavy rotation on FM radio. ‘Heavy rotation’ simply meant you would hear the hottest hits of the day at least once per hour, and in some cases, every half an hour. The listening public was more or less force fed a steady diet of songs by certain artists guaranteeing that A) they would indeed sell a lot of records and B) make everyone sick of certain songs when their time in heavy rotation was done. If the tag ‘Stereo 100’ resonates in ones head, one knows the format well.
- A) and B) certainly happened for Peter Frampton, but he also got option C) for his trouble: his mega selling album raised the bar so high that he had no realistic chance of reaching that level of success again. It didn’t matter what Peter Frampton put on a record for the rest of his career, it would be compared to the success of FCA! What most of the American record buying public didn’t know was Frampton’s history. When his record sales soared, many thought he was a ‘new’ artist and that FCA! was a case of runaway success right out of the gate. The truth is, Frampton was already on music career #3 by the time he struck gold (and platinum) with what was at the time both the biggest selling double album and live album to date.
A school chum of Davy Jones (the one who would go on to become David Bowie, not the one in the Monkees), Frampton remembered playing guitar with Jones/Bowie during lunch breaks at school (Frampton’s father was their art teacher). Knocking about in various bands as all wanna-be rockers tend to do, Frampton first gained some amount of fame in The Herd. They were modestly successful, but he grew increasingly uncomfortable as the press spent more and more time talking about his pretty boy looks and not so much about his music. In a calculated move, he left The Herd and recruited Steve Marriott to form Humble Pie in 1968 (see FTV: Jerry Shirley 1-16-19 for the full story of how The Pie came together). Marriott was also growing tired of being a pop idol in The Small Faces, so he jumped at the chance to form a band with a harder edge. Steve Marriott was a true musical force of nature so naturally, people assumed that Frampton had joined his band, and not the other way around. By the time the album that truly broke the band in America came out (Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore – 1971), Frampton had left the band to forge a solo career. Modest sales of his first three solo albums (Winds of Change – 1972, Frampton’s Camel – 1973, and Frampton – 1975) made him think that he had made the biggest mistake of his career. Frampton remembered thinking at the time, “I’ve been lucky so far, I’ve made the right decisions, and now I’ve messed it up. [But] that period was my coming of age as a writer and a player. Because I didn’t know anything and I was just shooting in the dark. I was always in the moment. Y’know: ‘Maybe this album will make a little bit more noise’.”
Recorded in San Francisco and New York, Frampton Comes Alive! Made more than ‘a little bit more noise’ and since it was released in 1976, it has racked up platinum album sales (actually, eight-times platinum level sales!). As he remembered the album for Henry Yates in Classic Rock Magazine (CRM # 263 – June 2019): “That album is very special to me. It was a spectacular moment in time that we actually recorded. You only have to listen to the audience – and that’s not fake. With that kind of an audience, why wouldn’t you play great?”
I was fortunate enough to see Frampton play at the Hedgecock Field House at Northern Michigan University before I FCA! was released. When I finally got the album, I realized why it sounded very familiar. When I saw him, he wasn’t just touring in support of the album. Frampton was on the same tour that is documented on FCA! Viewing the cover today, my first recollection of seeing him live was, “My God, that is the skinniest human being I have ever seen!” One could almost imagine Franpton turning his guitar sideways and hiding behind it. Unlike the proverbial ‘elephant hiding in a bamboo forest’, he might have actually disappeared behind the neck of his Les Paul.
Success can do funny things to those on the receiving end. Even as he was riding the crest of the wave with his massive album sales and sold out shows, doubt crept into Frampton’s mind: “[I would think] If it hadn’t been for my looks, [maybe] people would have accepted it on a different level. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so big. How many people bought it for the way I looked, as opposed to the way it sounded? I don’t know.” Frampton also found that once you get to the Moon, eventually you must come down: “It felt like I’d come from nowhere. Then this phenomenon happens. Then I came to ground again. You don’t make the best decisions in your mid-twenties. So, it was pretty hellish, a ‘one-thing-after-another period. I can blame a lot of things, but it was my decision to drink.”
Whether the over the top success fueled the drinking or the drinking contributed to the sinking album sales, Peter Frampton remembers the post FCA! period with a clear eye today: “I was around people who were doing a lot of it. I am a very small guy and it doesn’t take much to get me loaded. I guess I could feel it all slipping away. I’m In You (1977) wasn’t the success everyone hoped for. The [Sgt. Pepper] film was a disaster. There’s a certain amount of embarrassment that sets in, where you are up there one day and then the next day, it falls apart.” If Frampton thought he was on a downward slope in 1977, nothing could have prepared him for the horrific car crash he barely survived the next year in the Bahamas. Frampton says, “I was loaded. I was drunk. So I didn’t feel anything. I passed out while driving and crashed into a wall and then into a tree.” As mentally damaged as he was at that point, the physical damage had the potential to end his guitar playing career: “I broke quite a few bones in my body. My right arm was a compound fracture. I broke both feet. Both hands. And six or seven ribs. I had a cut above my right eye to the center of my head. See, actually, I have had plastic surgery! But just to cover up the scar.”
No surgeon could cover up what was broken musically and the four albums he recorded between 1979 and 1982 were lackluster at best. Art of Control (1982) was made during a period when Frampton was anything but in control. As a perfectionist who in his own words ‘wants to be involved one hundred percent’ in any project he is working on, he was anything but during this period. “I felt like I was going through the motions,” he told Yates, “[during Art of Control] I was absent, I wasn’t in the room for the final mix, so I didn’t have the final say. I guess I didn’t care. That was my lowest point.”
In 1985, his old chum Bowie gave him what he now calls ‘an incredible gift’. Bowie invited Frampton to come to Switzerland to play on the sessions for what would be Bowie’s 1987 Never Let Me Down album. He then asked if Frampton would be available to play guitar on his upcoming Glass Spider tour that was in production. “He could have had anyone on guitar he wanted,” says Frampton, “I think he knew it had all gone wrong for me. He basically gave me this gift of going around the world again, reintroducing me as a guitar player. That really changed everything for me. When I got back I started touring again. The Glass Spider tour, that is when things started to turn around.” Finally sober, he and Marriott tried to reignite the magic they had conjured up in the Humble Pie days. At age 42, Frampton explained to Marriott that they could make an album but only if they did it together (and sober). It never happened. Even with all of the gears meshed for one last go at recording together, Marriott checked out for good in a tragic house fire in 1991, just before the project could be moved forward. Frampton was forced to move on alone.
Frampton’s career was on the rise again. A 2006 Grammy award for his instrumental Fingerprints album was not only validation for what he was doing, it was a complete shock. The gift Bowie had given him was the start of his ascent, but as he says now, “The Grammy kicked things into seventh gear.” He returned to singing on 2010’s Thank You Mr. Chruchill while espousing the twin themes of pacifism and tolerance. He would be tempted to write a more politically charged album today (“We got a mess in the U.S. because we have a messy President. I don’t want to talk about him because I just get nauseous!”) but he has bigger fish to fry. Frampton has mounted what will probably be his last tour that will end where he recorded both FCA! and
Frampton Comes Alive II! – San Francisco: “My family will be there. That’ll be an emotional last date, for sure.”
Why is Peter Frampton pulling the plug on his career? As he tells it, “Four year ago, we were playing an outdoor concert, and I kicked a beach ball out into the audience and fell over backwards. So we all laughed it off and I got up, I was fine, it was a good joke. Two weeks later, I did the same thing only just with my guitar getting in the way.” During a break in the tour, he visited a neurologist who told him he has a nero-muscular disorder known as IBM. Inclusion Body Myositis is a degenerative condition that leads to weakening of the limbs, loss of balance and grip strength. “It was a shocking, sobering diagnosis,” Frampton told Yates, “but I have come to grips with it. IBM is life-changing, but isn’t life-ending.” The perfectionist in Frampton will not let him take the stage and fake his way through a show: “That would be soul destroying for me, knowing that I couldn’t do what I have always done. Up until this time [my playing] has been getting better and better. Even at this late stage of my career. And I just want to go out knowing I’ve given it my best. I made the decision to make [this summer] a farewell tour, because I didn’t want to miss the goodbye, coming around and doing it one more time.”
As for his good looks, Frampton claims he was almost happy when he began to lose his hair. His close cropped head no longer resembles the good looking lad with the ringlet curls from the days gone by. He told CRM: “It didn’t upset me. It is like what is going on now. You have to accept the cards you are dealt. I found it funny and ironic, that here is a guy that has this huge hair and is famous for it, and all of a sudden, he’s got no hair. Not much, anyway. This is how I am. Accept me and I will accept myself, too.”
I find myself relistening to the songs from FCA! now that Frampton is winding down his career. Even the ones that I couldn’t stand to hear during the years of radio overplay sound fresh again. We may not see Frampton on tour any more, but we will always have his music. After navigating so many hills and valleys, it is good to see him closing out his musical career with a smooth patch of road and a positive attitude about life without touring.
Top Piece Video: Frampton comes alive, indeed! Basically the band I saw only the keyboardist at the time (Bob Mayo) was AWOL for some reason that night – I got to see FCA! done as a trio!